I’d like to tell you why I live in Montreal.
I came here in 1990. I was fresh from my Master’s programme in English Literature and needed a second-language credit to finish, so I came to do French immersion. Two weeks into the programme, I knew I was going to stay.
Although I’d grown up in Ontario and gone to university in Toronto and Hamilton, I never quite felt like I belonged. There was something about the formality of my education environments that always troubled me.
I never felt good enough or competitive enough. Although I now understand there were myriad reasons for my feeling this way—my natural temperament being one–external and measurable reasons existed too.
I was born in the 1960s, before the celebration of multi-culturalism in this country became standard operating procedure, and my parents had felt the lash of xenophobia. They were afraid of authority because they had reason to be. Although their fears had more to do with social ostracism than anything else, I could see, even as a child, that they occupied what they felt was a safe space on the periphery of Canadian culture. There was a reason they had one foot in Canada and another back in the old country: it gave them a sense of security.
So when, as a 30 year-old, I came to Montreal and breathed in the atmosphere, I was surprised to find myself feeling so completely at ease. Layers of unhappiness just seemed to peel off. There were also clues in the environment that told me I was in the right place, a place where I could be myself, or at least be closer to myself-as-a-destination.
The potential for greater authenticity seemed to be part of the zoning here, just like the crazy parking signs, the multitude of buskers and performers and the vivid street art. There was an irrepressible energy here—like the energy that made trouble for me back in Ontario—and I experienced a quiet sense of permission. There was a voice that said it’s okay, be yourself and it was irresistible. So I stayed; I explored.
Why am I still here? I can answer that best when I look at the last year of my life. I took part in two projects outside my teaching duties. One project involved working with Francophones on a government initiative. The other was a more personal project, one that had a less sweeping focus but was very important to me. The latter was organized and conducted by Anglophones in Ontario. Suffice it to say my experience of these two groups differed significantly.
I think courage is a strength of the Anglophone culture, both in Canada and abroad, and is what makes it competitive and strong. The Brits colonized much of the world for a reason. They had the will to do it and the smarts to accomplish it. Their ability to act speaks to a competitive streak that has served them very well. On the other hand, their famous reserve—that stiff upper lip–can be downright unnerving to someone like me.
The French, who don’t seem to like Anglophones very much, were just as exacting in many ways. Their capacity for bureaucracy startled and dismayed me. When I think of the French, I automatically think of paperwork. They colonized too; however, I’m tempted to believe that their relative lack of breadth in that regard was due to the bureaucracy that surely must have slowed their imperialistic drive. Invade another country? Attendre, we’ve got a form for that!
So what was the difference? That irrepressible energy I felt when I first started exploring the streets of Montreal has another incarnation and that’s in the level of connectedness I felt with my French colleagues. I screwed up a couple of times; most notably, I once got hopelessly lost on the way to a meeting and was very, very late.
At first I was met with a Gallic shrug and then questions about my welfare. Are you stressed? Do you have a GPS? Ahhhh, GPSs. A long and detailed discussion followed about the newness of the roads in that part of Montreal and how they were not yet appearing on satellite maps. I sat there willing everyone to please stop talking about it. It’s because there was someone in the room who was judging me quite harshly and that person was me. I’m not sure why this is, but I can still cringe over that episode. I cringe even though it’s clear I was forgiven, immediately and completely, by the very colleagues I had kept waiting.
My dealings with the Anglos didn’t go quite like this. I had some difficulty with them too, but the resolution, such as it was, looked quite different. I had an email correspondence with an Anglo woman that can only be described as a conversation so tautly strung with suppressed anger that it twanged. Politeness is there in spades, but underlying hostility is too. As is the judging, the neutral words designed to point out my deficiencies, the posturing for power, the strategic sense of advancement and retreat. In short, I felt I was fighting a war and I had to measure each word because, like beads on an abacus, they would be counted. It was painful too, but I didn’t cringe. I walked on eggshells instead and it was exhausting.
It would be easy to say I’m over-simplifying. That I’m erroneously making these conflicts represent larger trends in diverse cultures. But having lived here for over 20 years, I know I’m right. The connectedness I feel living in this city explains why things went so well with my French colleagues. People here look at one another, acknowledge one another, and it makes a difference.
When I first arrived in Montreal, I had few opportunities to work. My French was limited and even service-industry jobs require one to be fluently bilingual. So I did what I knew best: I taught English, first as a second language and then as literature at the college level. My first job was at a language school. It was located close to a flagship location of The Bay, right in downtown Montreal.
One thing I noticed about Montreal was that people, particularly men, would look at me in a very frank and undisguised way. I remember walking into The Bay, almost daily, and using mirrors on the cosmetic counter to check my face. I did this precisely because I was being looked at. I assumed these men were looking because I had touched my cheek after erasing one of the school’s whiteboards. I thought I must have an ink smear, or perhaps running mascara, on my face.
It took me a long time to realize that they were looking for another reason altogether and that a frank appraisal of my looks was meant to communicate a very positive message to me. It took me a bit longer to realize that even women looked at other women and, far from being a sign of competition, it seemed to reflect a genuine curiosity, or a willingness to make contact, however subtle.
At first I was non-plussed by this and and it flustered me more times than I care to remember. However, in a sneaky way it felt good and gradually I got used to it. Around that time, I had a chance conversation with a woman at a coffee shop, a woman who had been recently widowed. She told me that whenever she felt lonely, she would take a walk around old Montreal. She said she felt an instant connection to others and I knew exactly what she meant. Looking at another human being can be a salutory act, a way of saying “I acknowledge you.” It’s powerful and it happens here all the time.
So you can imagine my surprise when a friend from Toronto, here for a year, started telling me how violated she felt when she walked the streets of Montreal.
I tried to explain the difference in culture. I tried to tell her that if men were looking at her, perhaps it was because they found her attractive and that she should enjoy it. I also encouraged her to become an observer of life in this city and to wait and see whether or not women looked at her in a similar way, albeit with friendship on their minds. She was not convinced, although I hoped that in a year’s time she’d at least come to appreciate the power of a friendly glance.
I had no luck and that’s because the cultural imperative of avoiding the gaze of others is strongly ingrained in other people in other cities. That’s true in this country and in other parts of the world. It’s too bad. When my mother was ill and I was crying almost every day, I appreciated the fact that people here would see my reddened eyes and not look away. Their gazes, far from being threatening or embarrassing, served to tell me that crying was a normal thing to do under stressful circumstances. C’est normal, their eyes seemed to say. And that helped–a lot.
I can still feel the way I felt when I first arrived in Montreal: that I’m living in a transporting place where I can be taken to a higher state of consciousness if I allow it to happen. And it does happen when I come around a corner and see a sculpture in an intimate spot or a window-box overflowing with flowers. I still stop when I see a church facade that is particularly artful or an expanse of water rippling in the view between buildings. Montrealers have taught me to notice these things.
And I still remember my first year here. I remember opening my classroom window at the Y, where I was teaching English, and explaining that what a soulful saxophone player was doing outside was called “busking.” The children came to the window and we watched as a crowd formed and passersby stopped to put coins in his saxophone case. In other words, we watched while people of all ages stopped not only to notice his music, but to listen and acknowledge it as well.
And now you know: these are the reasons I live in Montreal.